Crypto marketing executives have a habit of making some bold claims in gaming that are poorly received by indie devs and players worldwide.¹ “Interoperability” is one such buzzword that tops the charts for its ability to draw ire from traditional gaming crowds, and, with good reason — there’s a severe disconnect between the fundamental technology at play and what’s been proposed via marketing. Below we consider the fact and fiction around “interoperability,” and discuss its new cousin, “omniportability.”
The Myth of “Interoperability”
Twitter rants make for good intros, and the below tweetstorm summarizes a great deal of the public’s distrust for crypto gaming’s favorite marketing buzzword, “interoperability.”
Rami is a well-known indie developer and gaming consultant, and genuinely has the industry’s best interests at heart here. And, understandably, he’s chosen to address his criticism against the prevailing (& poorly architected) idea of “interoperability” in blockchain gaming. Other Twitter rants on interoperability I was pointed to include Xavierck’s here and Dan Lowe’s here. These descriptions detail, correctly, how improbable it would be to create systems to take “one game asset into another game.”
Put simply, the arguments sum to: (1) it is commercially infeasible to imagine porting IP between games as there’s no revenue impetus, and (2) the technological barriers of doing so would be more-or-less insurmountable, given the distinct requirements of individual game engines (e.g. physics environments, lighting constructs, and texture styles). Whether or not you agree with those conclusions, there’s more to the story that requires some semantic nuance and historical perspective.
You Mean “Omniportability,” not “Interoperability”
Blockchain is not designed to enable “portability” of assets. Public blockchains, to date, would be awful to rely upon as largescale storage databases, and it would be wholly infeasible to do something like store multi-gigabyte 8k textures on Ethereum mainnet where max individual transaction size is barely more than 1 MB.
This “omniportability” of weighty game assets is a fantasy cooked up by middle-of-the-road tech solution grifters and corporate middle managers who duped a ton of VCs that didn’t know any better into buying their vision of a “metaverse” back in 2021.
I specify “omniportability” as opposed to the oft-touted “interoperability” because it’s a critical semantic difference. Interoperability is a well-established historical bastion of open source computing and design. It does not rely on the absolute transfer of digital assets from one place to another. In contrast, the promise we often see from crypto gaming marketing teams, in my opinion, is better described as “omniportability.”
For clarity, blockchain, fundamentally, is a digital certificating system. It’s a shared public ledger of digital asset ownership. If I own a World of Warcraft mount with an NFT attached to it, then anyone in any game can publicly verify that I own that mount. GTA may run a cross-promotion with World of Warcraft and give me a super-fast Ferrari in one game if I have a rare hippogryph in the other. The weighty 3D models and assets don’t move off their respective host servers, but the digital certificate (NFT) grants a user permissions to access or benefit from both. That’s what fundamental blockchain interoperability is about. Provable, permanent, public certificating of assets and cross-ecosystem function calls.²
Real Interoperability Already Exists & Is Commercially Viable
In some hypothetical world where AAA games store certificates of user asset holdings on shared public ledgers, GTA wouldn’t even need to ask for permission to “airdrop” GTA assets to all existing users of a different game. GTA could simply observe the public chain and make a Twitter post saying that anyone who owns the Cenarion War Hippogryph in World of Warcraft is automatically entitled to a Ferrari 250 GTO inside of GTA.
Straightforward cross-game promotions like this are popular (see: every Fortnite skin ever) because both brands involved in the promotion generally achieve some bump in consumer awareness. Unfortunately, these promotions are also often complex to execute from a legal and commercial standpoint, and thus outside the reach of most smaller studios.³ Blockchain can’t fix your legal problems, but it can put the rails in place to massively accelerate commercial strategies, and expand the opportunities available to small and large studios for guerrilla marketing.
This is an exceptionally powerful paradigm that started well before “crypto” entered our postmodern lexicon. Open-source software is, by definition, “interoperable.” Private and public projects routinely reference open databases and modules to compile information and execute functions across ecosystems to create emergent products. Even in the world of the “web2 giants,” AWS is to some degree supported-by & synergistic-with major open source software, like Kubernetes, which was originally developed by a competitor, Google, and is now openly maintained by both parties and thousands of other contributors.
NFTs, and blockchain at large, are the next level of the same — but they permit the open validation and record of certificates representing ownership of digital assets. This was previously not possible, because it requires largescale public consensus on what is “real” in a digital landscape and what is not.⁴ Which, by definition, is a consensus mechanism. And, where would be a convenient place to record the results of such consensus decisions? Well, a shared public ledger of timestamped transactions might do. We’ll call it a “blockchain” to be cheeky.⁵
NFTs Can Enable Real “Interoperability“ — But Beware Marketing
Gaming groups are right to reflex against grifters selling some dubious cosmic dystopia where every JPEG you’ve ever posted is somehow simultaneously operable in Minecraft as well as Halo as a 3D fully rigged asset. It’s a pipe dream that would require inter-corporate cooperation at a level few industries could ever achieve, much less the notoriously emotional game dev industry. So, while it’s certainly possible that widespread industry collaboration could lead to new open asset standards to permit “omniportability” of assets,⁶ that’s a problem separate from blockchain (and NFTs) entirely, and could be solved with or without them.
But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Provable, public, transferable digital ownership via blockchain certificating (NFTs) is a big step forward in open source collaboration and software development. Getting angry at blockchain for enabling what are effectively fancy SSL certificates is missing the point.⁷ Focus your ire on the grifters, not on the tech. Real “interoperability” in the form of open-source database referencing & shared function calls is extremely powerful and important, both from an academic and a commercial standpoint.
“Omniportability” of weighty game assets is a cute dream that we’ll solve as an industry later in some future utopia, but it shouldn’t be the focus now, for either us “cryptobros” or our analogues across the aisle. There’s a ton of fascinating end-consumer use cases we can dream up using tech that’s barely starting to enter the mainstream (e.g. NFTs) by leveraging public verifiability and user data self-sovereignty. Let’s work together, constructively, to clean up the marketing and explore the constructive parts of new technologies for a more distributed future. 🤝
¹I recently had a job posting of mine for a Game Director role be rejected by an indie game dev job site because our games happen to have optional blockchain features. The CEO of that site very helpfully reached out and linked me a series of articles that explain their staunch anti-blockchain position, which are the tweets I mentioned above.
²Sound familiar? It should. “Web2,” aka the “World Wide Web” you’re reading this off of, verified that this site exists & is not fraudulent using a series of protocol certificates (i.e. SSL etc). The only difference is those aren’t hosted on a public consensus layer (i.e. a blockchain), they’re just stored in ordinary public databases hosted by private groups.
³I expect these kinds of “vampire attacks” to become exceptionally popular as blockchain gaming goes more mainstream. Your demographic overlap with your target audience will be near-100% with a marketing ploy like this.
⁴Out in the real world, our “consensus mechanism” is a federal banking system that issues paper notes we can all ostensibly inspect to confirm their authenticity. Any two parties could manually “arrive at consensus” by choosing an arbitrary paper dollar note and inspecting the watermarks to confirm that the certificate matches expectations.
⁵Interestingly, Satoshi’s original paper on Bitcoin never once uses the word “blockchain.” Per his original writing, Bitcoin would live inside of a series of “public transaction timestamps.” The modern interpretation of blockchain came later, probably when the marketing groups stepped in.
⁶I genuinely hope we get to this point in the industry, too, though I’ll readily admit it’s highly unlikely we see convergent asset standards anytime soon.
⁷Because my audience spans folks in the gaming industry with generous reservations about crypto at-large, I’m including a quick reminder that, yes, proof of work is an energy burden, but proof of stake networks reduce energy expenditures of blockchain by over 99%, which makes Ethereum almost a thousand times less-polluting than YouTube alone.
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